CUTTING SPENDING TO REDUCE THE DEFICIT

ABSTRACT: A deal was reached to address the year-end “fiscal cliff” or austerity crisis. Spending cuts were postponed for two months and most of the tax increases were eliminated, while some tax and revenue increases were enacted. The deficit reduction focus will now largely shift to spending cuts. We should be focusing on job creation and strengthening the economy, but somehow the deficit is the hot topic.

 The discussion of spending cuts will probably focus on the military and on entitlement programs, specifically Social Security and the health care programs, Medicare and Medicaid. Much of the discussion of cutting military spending will be on avoiding cuts. However, military spending can be reduced up to $200 billion per year – without jeopardizing national security.

 Turning to calls for cuts in Social Security and our public sector health programs, keep in mind that every other advanced economy has health care for all and a retirement support system. Social Security has its own funding stream and does not contribute to the deficit, so rationally it shouldn’t be part of this discussion. Ideologues are using the deficit issue to target Social Security because of their doctrinaire opposition to it. Minor changes to its funding would cover benefits for the next 75 years.

 My next post will review proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

 FULL POST: As you probably know, a deal was reached to address the year-end “fiscal cliff” or austerity crisis. Spending cuts were postponed for two months and most of the tax increases were eliminated, while some tax and revenue increases were enacted. The cap on the US government’s debt was not addressed and will be hit in about two months. Here’s a quick summary of what was enacted: [1]

  • Income tax rates on incomes over $400,000 will increase from 35% to 39.6% and some reductions in deductions will start at $250,000 in income, but there is no “Buffett Rule” requiring 30% be paid on incomes over $1 million. The net result is that new revenue from income taxes will be only about $60 billion per year as opposed to up to $450 billion with the rates increased on incomes over $250,000 and the “Buffet Rule”.
  • The Social Security payroll tax reduction was NOT extended, so all workers will have an additional 2% taken out of their paychecks on earnings up to $110,000.
  • Tax benefits for low income households were extended: a child credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements income from low paying jobs. The tuition credit was extended as was the corporate research and development credit. The Alternative Minimum Tax, which originally was to function like the “Buffett Rule”, was adjusted so it won’t affect middle income taxpayers.
  • Unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed were extended for a year.
  • The estate tax was increased slightly but not nearly as much as some had proposed and only on individual estates of over $5 million or joint estates of over $10 million.

The deficit reduction focus will now largely shift to spending cuts. We should be focusing on job creation and strengthening the economy, given high unemployment and slow economic growth, but somehow the deficit is the hot topic. As the current experience in Europe is clearly showing, cutting government spending weakens the economy and job growth and can put countries back into a recession.

Having said that, the discussion of spending cuts will probably focus on the military and on entitlement programs, specifically Social Security and the health care programs, Medicare (for seniors) and Medicaid (for low income people including low income seniors).

Unfortunately, much of the discussion of cutting military spending will be on avoiding cuts, including the $50 billion per year cut that is now scheduled for March 1. Military spending can be reduced this much and more – up to $200 billion per year – without jeopardizing national security. (See blog posts of 9/29/12 and 11/17/11 for more information.) For example, Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary under President Reagan, has itemized $150 billion in annual cuts to the military budget. [2]

In the recently enacted $633 billion Defense Department spending bill, there was widespread criticism of inclusion of unnecessary spending. The dollar amount was more than the Department or President requested.  The Pentagon complained that it is required to keep weapons, as well as bases and units, that are not needed or efficient. Defense Secretary Panetta decried meddling by Congress that required “excess force structure and infrastructure.” [3][4]

Turning to calls for cuts in Social Security and our public sector health programs, keep in mind that every other advanced economy has health care for all and a retirement support system. So the issue is not whether it is possible to have these programs, it is are we willing to pay for them and are we willing to control health care costs.

Social Security has its own funding stream and does not contribute to the deficit, so rationally it shouldn’t be part of this discussion. Ideologues are using the deficit issue to target Social Security because of their doctrinaire opposition to it. Furthermore, its current funding will cover its benefits for roughly the next 20 years and after that minor changes to its funding would cover benefits for the next 75 years without any cuts in benefits. (See post of 12/4/11 for more details.)

The most prominent proposal for cutting Social Security spending is to reduce the annual increase in benefits that adjusts for inflation. This would save less than $20 billion per year over 10 years. [5] Ask any senior you know if the inflation adjustment is sufficient to keep up with their cost of living and I bet they’ll say, “No.” So cutting this will only hurt our seniors and reduce Social Security’s ability to keep seniors out of poverty. Furthermore, Social Security has become an increasingly important part of retirement income as private sector pensions have largely disappeared; cutting its rather modest benefits seems inappropriate in this environment.

My next post will review proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.


[1]       New York Times, 1/1/13, “Highlights of the agreement,” The Boston Globe

[2]       Dubose, L., 11/15/12, Book review of Ralph Nader’s “The seventeen solutions: Bold ideas for our American future,” The Washington Spectator

[3]       Bender, B., 1/5/13, “A reprieve for local military bases: New Congressional funding flouts Pentagon’s plan for cutbacks,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Boston Globe Political Notebook, 12/21/12, “House approves defense bill despite Pentagon objections,” The Boston Globe

[5]       Krugman, P., 12/3/12, “The GOP’s big budget mumble,” The New York Times

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